This is a story about being brave in a different way – by letting others more fully into my own mental struggles. To actually be the real me.
And it involves letting others see me cry.
I’ve cried when I’ve felt loss or grief, or when others I care about have experienced loss. I’ve wept when loved ones have died. I cried buckets over a friendship ending years ago. I cried trying to get used to my son being gone, and still tear up a little when I leave his world, and reenter my own. But most of those tears have been private.
But this is the story of sudden, unexpected tears that embarrassed me just a tad, but mostly surprised me as I fought to get back in control and breathe.
I was at a rehearsal of the “This Is My Brave” show, a live performance that features people with mental illness opening up and sharing not only their struggles, but what they’ve learned from them. The organization’s whole purpose is to use those stories to educate and destigmatize mental and emotional problems — to teach people that all kinds of people from all walks of life are dealing every day with mental illness. It was begun by two women, Jennifer Marshall and Anne Marie Ames, both with mental illness. Both wanted to end the stigma. Anne Marie tragically died before realizing the massive impact of their dream — only giving Jennifer’s mission more purpose and determination.
People need to know that they’re not alone. And what you can do is to tell your story about your mental illness.
My story was about my own panic disorder.
Frankly, I’d imagined that reading my story would be a breeze, as I’d already talked about experiencing panic. I’d told the amusing tale about being accosted by my psychiatrist’s receptionist as her curiosity drove her to question me, “Just what is wrong with you?” I’d written about my panic emerging, and how I vigorously fought against and initially denied what was then the unwelcome realization that I had a mental illness.
The inward struggle to be real… to be present and vulnerable…
But it wasn’t easy. It was far from a breeze. As my words started to come out of my mouth, my throat tightened, tears came to my eyes, and I struggled for a second to catch a breath.
“Perhaps if you’ve ever talked with me one on one, you may notice that I often lean against the wall, or steady myself with a chair. That’s my anxiety.”
I suddenly felt exposed. My brain raced. What was I doing? Was I really going to let out this secret? Was I actually choosing to allow people into my real world, the world behind the persona of the confident psychologist?
But I kept reading, as it felt as if I was handing the keys to my hiding place over to anyone who might be interested enough to go in and take a peek. And it wasn’t over yet.
I kept reading and began to shake a little. Ever so slightly.
“Anxiety was invading my life. I didn’t mind so much the panic itself. It was the shaking. I hated that my anxiety, my vulnerability, showed.”
That was it. Now I was being totally honest. It’s not that I had a problem, a mental health issue that was, or is, uncomfortable and even painful. It’s that others can see it. I can’t hide it, at least not all of the time.
I felt incredibly vulnerable. I was afraid. And tears came, whether I wanted them to or not.
Confronting fear of stigma...
I did everything I could to shut up the voice that was yelling at me inside my head, “You’re a psychologist. It’s your job to help others achieve change they need and want. Now you’re choosing to let people know not only that you struggle, but you’re going to tell them how they can tell you are? You’re nuts.”
In that moment, I dove into the deep end of vulnerability. I might be nuts. But my choice was clear. And I wasn’t going to listen to that voice.
I’m not ashamed of my vulnerability. If I can help one person who hides their struggle, then reveal I will.
It’s me, being real. It’s me, being honest.
If I cry as I do it, then so be it.
You can hear more about vulnerability and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published Apr 8, 2017 and updated on December 1, 2019.